Suspect Arrested for Deadly Arson Attack on Palestinians Was Top Police Target for a Year

'When a man declared a police target manages to commit a significant crime under the law enforcement system’s nose, that’s a failure,' says former police investigator.

Gidi Weitz
Chaim Levinson
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Amiram Ben-Uliel.
Amiram Ben-Uliel.Credit: Facebook
Gidi Weitz
Chaim Levinson

The chief suspect in last summer’s deadly arson attack on a Palestinian family in Duma had been declared a high-priority target by the police a year earlier – meaning the triple murder might have been prevented had police managed to arrest him during this time, Haaretz has learned.

According to a senior law enforcement official, someone is declared a police target only when “a significant amount of intelligence regarding the commission of prima facie crimes has accumulated against him,” and it requires approval from the head of the national investigations department. Once that approval is obtained, police set up a special task force to collect additional intelligence and hard evidence against the suspect, including by tailing and wiretapping him, with the goal of bringing him to justice swiftly.

Very few people are declared police targets, and only when “their capture is deemed essential to society,” the official added.

A former senior officer in the police’s investigations department said that “When a man declared a police target manages to commit a significant crime under the law enforcement system’s nose, that’s a failure.” Had the police and the Shin Bet security service taken Amiram Ben-Uliel more seriously and watched him more closely, “the murder could have been prevented,” he added.

Ben-Uliel, 21, was recently charged with murdering three members of the Dawabsheh family, including an 18-month-old toddler, and seriously wounding a fourth by firebombing the family’s home in the West Bank town of Duma on the night of July 30. The alleged motive was to avenge the murder of Malachi Rosenfeld by Palestinian terrorists the previous month. A minor was also charged in the Duma case, but for conspiring to attack Arabs rather than participating in the actual arson.

Ben-Uliel is originally from Karmei Zur, a settlement north of Hebron and is the eldest son of Rabbi Reuven Ben-Uliel, who is identified with mainstream religious Zionism. Prior to the deadly firebombing, the younger Ben-Uliel lived on a bus in the Adei Ad outpost, on a hilltop that overlooks Duma.

The fact that Ben-Uliel committed a crime despite being declared a police target doesn’t mean police were negligent, the former senior police officer stressed. “The police can’t monitor these people 24 hours a day,” he explained, “due to lack of resources and manpower – especially when they do everything they can to make it hard for us. They act secretly, in small groups, and rarely use cell phones.”

Nevertheless, he added, in the 20 years since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, the law enforcement system has “failed utterly in dealing with the extreme right.”

Ben-Uliel was listed as a target in an internal police document prepared by the investigations department a year before the murder. The document, which sought to identify the main far-right extremists behind a growing wave of attacks on Palestinians and map their relationships with each other, listed dozens of suspects. A second document prepared by the department provided a rough profile of the typical far-right criminal, in an effort to help police identify additional suspects in such attacks.

The latter document, reported here for the first time, said the extremists usually made preparations for their attacks between 8 and 10 P.M., but actually committed them between 1 and 3 A.M. Most are from the West Bank, and they usually returned home early in the morning, either in a prepared getaway vehicle or by hitchhiking.

When committing an attack, they usually bind their long sidelocks to their napes to make themselves harder to identify if caught on camera and wear work clothes, sweatshirts and sandals, though some prefer boots. Sometimes, they mask their faces. If the crime is carried out inside Israel, they usually wear shirts typical of yeshiva students rather than T-shirts with far-right slogans, and move in small groups of two or three.

For serious attacks, they generally use old cars that aren’t their own. For less serious crimes, like spray-painting graffiti, they go by foot or hitchhike. En route to committing a crime, they usually walk at a leisurely pace to avoid rousing suspicion.

Sometimes, they use cars belonging to settlements. In some settlements, the document explained, settlers will jointly buy a used car, leave it in the seller’s name but register it as having been taken off the road.

The extremists’ average age is 14 to 18, but some are as young as 10 or 12 and others are in their early twenties. They usually “have poor personal hygiene,” the document said, and they rarely carry cell phones when committing crimes, to make themselves harder to identify.

Women are rarely involved in far-right crime, the document said, but when they are, they are usually very young religious girls who commit their crimes inside Israel rather than in the West Bank.

The other document listed about 60 key suspects involved in far-right crime. Most live in settlements; some are minors. Some, like Ben-Uliel, were declared targets by the police and the Shin Bet’s Jewish division.

Topping the list was Moshe Orbach, 24, originally from an ultra-Orthodox family in Bnei Brak. He has been involved in establishing illegal settlement outposts and is considered a key ideologue involved in promulgating the ideas of rebellion against the state and committing attacks on Christians as well as Muslims. He was arrested in 2013 on suspicion of torching a monastery in Latrun, but ultimately released.

Last week, he was convicted of sedition for writing a document that offered instructions for committing terror attacks against Arabs and evading capture by the police and Shin Bet. The document, written and revised 30 times between March and July 2015, chillingly foreshadowed the Duma attack. “Sometimes we get sick of attacking property,” Orbach wrote. “Then we’d simply want to torch the house with its residents inside.”

Another key figure on the list was Meir Ettinger, 24, a grandson of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane who founded the outlawed Kach movement. Ettinger was long the Shin Bet’s number-one Jewish target. In 2012, he was convicted of spying on the army in an effort to thwart outpost demolitions and spent six months in jail, where he became further radicalized.

He subsequently authored two documents advocating the immediate replacement of Israel’s democratic system of government with a king who would preside over a Jewish theocracy and enforce religious law. This could be achieved, he argued, by terror attacks against Arabs that would sow chaos, destabilize the state and ultimately cause its collapse.

Since mid-2014, the Shin Bet has acquired 180 intelligence tips about Ettinger’s efforts to recruit people to join his planned rebellion. He was put in administrative detention in August 2015 and is due to be released in June.

The document also included the sons of two prominent figures in Israel extreme settler right: Yishai Marzel, the son of Barauch Marzel, who was arrested in the past of his role in alleged hate crimes (so-called "price tag attacks"); and Abraham Shapira, the son of Matanya Shapira, the deputy director general of the Yesha Council.

The oldest person on the list is Boaz Albert, 42. He is suspected of involvement in many attacks on Palestinians and disturbances of the peace in the West Bank. He is currently standing trial for throwing stones at a bus carrying Palestinian schoolgirls, allegedly to avenge the 2013 murder of Evyatar Borovsky by a Palestinian terrorist.

Another person on the list, Yakir Eshbal, 20, achieved public notoriety when guests at his wedding were filmed dancing with firebombs and knives and stabbing the picture of the slain Dawabsheh toddler, Ali. Eshbal was arrested after the wedding but later released.

His sister-in-law, Moriah Goldberg, is also on the list, as is Ben-Uliel’s wife, Orian Nizri. The latter has been indicted about 10 times, and after her wedding began wearing burka-like garments that cover her completely.

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